Synergy is what comes about when a whole is more than the sum of its parts. What word would you use for a whole that is less than the sum of its parts?

I want a word that doesn't exclude the possibility that the whole is still good, overall — just less good than what one would expect. Thus, maybe not "disaccord." "Decadence" goes in the right direction (seen as a state of a society that results from a mixture of different social motivations), but I'm hoping for a word that isn't specifically moral, but would apply to epistemic situations ("mixtures of justifications"), as well as, perhaps to aesthetic ones.


4 Answers 4


The right word for the opposite meaning of synergy is antagonism. It means that two (or more) things counteract their individual effects.

It is mainly used in biology-related fields with the following definition from Collins, for example:

Antagonistic substances counteract the effects of another drug or substance.

With the original meaning from 1797 as follows (Etymonline):

state of being mutually opposed; opposition between two things or against something

For the overview, two (or more) effects can be:

  • additive (the effects add up)
  • synergic (the combined effects is more than the sum of the individual effects)
  • antagonistic (is less than the sum)
  • It has the disadvantage that the (heavily) default meaning outside the world of pharmaceuticals etc is 'openly hostile'. But then 'synergistic' isn't all that common in everyday registers. Aug 2, 2023 at 11:11

Perhaps cacophonous.

Synergy may still be the word. I cannot believe anything could be less than the sum of its parts. The outcome may be cacophonous or disastrously unpleasant but that does not exclude its being synergistic.

With the OP's comment I can only suggest: Bad luck, Par for the Course and Compromise.

  • When two causes jointly entail an outcome which has some quantitative measure, it may be that the magnitude outcome is either more or less than what one would expect if the outcome were to have been caused by just one of the causes. I have been using "synergy" for when it is more. What word can I use for when it is less?
    – shaunc
    Dec 16, 2020 at 5:28
  • A purely physical example of something less than the sum of its parts: using a diffraction grating, the quantum interference of protons, which cancel out in certain places.
    – shaunc
    Jan 4, 2021 at 7:02
  • 1
    I'm afraid you have been fooled. The waves may cancel in some places but I'm sure that the places where the peaks combine will make up for the dark bands. No energy is lost. The total < sum of parts is only based on disappointment with result vs expectation. All hope is never actually lost though it can surely seem so.
    – Elliot
    Jan 5, 2021 at 1:56
  • Eliot -- I know that -- conservation of energy. I guess I should have stressed I was illustrating what an observer at a point of destructive interference sees. Overall there is "synergy" in some places, and "negative synergy" == ? in other places. I'm looking for a word for a phenomenon -- for which English is often a rich resource even if there is no actuality it corresponds to; still the example serves to show that, point-wise, even in physics we can get such fluctuations.
    – shaunc
    Jan 5, 2021 at 5:25
  • Such fluctuations may appear but are not what they seem - is my point. If I had a better answer it would be above.
    – Elliot
    Jan 6, 2021 at 2:18

uncooperative resonates with an early definition of emergence:

The philosopher G. H. Lewes coined the term "emergent", writing in 1875:

Every resultant is either a sum or a difference of the co-operant forces; their sum, when their directions are the same – their difference, when their directions are contrary. Further, every resultant is clearly traceable in its components, because these are homogeneous and commensurable. It is otherwise with emergents, when, instead of adding measurable motion to measurable motion, or things of one kind to other individuals of their kind, there is a co-operation of things of unlike kinds. The emergent is unlike its components insofar as these are incommensurable, and it cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference. wikipedia

Alternatively, reduced might work (e.g. a synergistic vs a reduced system), alluding to the chemical notion of reduction, as in redox: reduction-oxidation

  • Thanks! Best so far (will mark as answer if nothing better shows up this week). Dischordant would perhaps pair with cooperant, but I guess that isn't yet English. :)
    – shaunc
    Jan 16, 2021 at 22:57
  • to be fair, cooperant is English, as well as non-cooperative.
    – gregory
    Jan 18, 2021 at 2:50

You might consider chaotic, which implies a lack of communication and cooperation between the parts.

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